Are tragic movie deaths considered newsworthy? What about Twitter users’ penchant to Rise and Grind? Social media has blurred the boundaries of traditional news organizations by allowing journalists and taste-makers to patch into a daily conversation around trends.
While only 8 percent of Americans who are online actually use Twitter, its awareness levels are through the roof — over 90 percent of the general population knows about the platform. Twitter’s adoption rate and visibility have made it a go-to for information, so it was only a matter of time before discussions of regulation would begin.
Earlier this month, AdAge’s Simon Dumenco argued that Twitter was becoming a “disinformation network.” Dumenco suggested that Twitter use human intermediaries to determine the “best source of information” for trending topics.
After venting his frustration with celebrity death hoaxes and jokes passed around and interpreted as truthful, Dumenco proposed that Twitter create a hierarchy of sources and parse the accuracy of what is trending on the site.
Dumenco says he doesn’t want to tamper with the trending topics (though, Twitter has already done that when Bieber-fever stricken teens figured out how to game the system) but he advocates for human oversight for origin and truthfulness of trends, and asks Twitter to rank sources of information, something akin to a content editor for Twitter.
That is so old media.
First, Twitter is a platform. No more, no less. While people find all kinds of uses for Twitter (everything from locating food trucks to popularizing new slang terms like QILF), it’s a stretch to assume that all users put a premium on “truthfulness” rather than other values like connection or entertainment.
Secondly, the whole idea of moderating a platform dedicated to an exchange of ideas is problematic. Much has been made of the social media boost Twitter provided to Iran’s Green Revolution and the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya. Did any of the initial updates come from so-called “best sources of information?”
The main players and participants were generally local citizens connected to those in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Many large media outlets were forced to scramble and play catch up. Was there both misinformation and true information spread? Of course. Breaking news is fluid until someone can confirm what is happening.
Trying to direct users to more established sources of information, instead of allowing them to decide for themselves who is credible, reinforces the idea that large establishments will automatically be more trustworthy than citizens on the ground — regardless of who actually has access to the best news and information.
Derrick Ashong, host of Al-Jazeera English’s social media-based news show “The Stream” agrees, finding the idea of empowering a handful of people to moderate truthfulness almost laughable.
“A lot of people argue that Fox News isn’t truthful, but we aren’t calling for an editor for DirectTV or Comcast,” he explained in a phone interview. “Since Twitter is a new media platform, people are looking at it in an old media way… They may not have a full comprehension of the medium. The editorial responsibility is from the source — if you chose to believe something from an unverified source, it’s on you.”
Ashong pointed out that media has traditionally been a top down kind of business, where a handful of people were expected to curate what was newsworthy for the masses.
“If I turn on CNN, I won’t hear anything about [what's] going on in Africa unless there’s a conflict to be covered or a tragedy. As a person born in Africa, that’s unacceptable to me. It isn’t that there’s no news being created, it’s just that we won’t hear about that news.”
With the democratization of information delivery (even as governments and corporations try to suppress certain types of information in favor of others), what is considered “newsworthy” is determined by the consumers of news.
To try to regulate Twitter, or shepherd people to the “best” source of information misses the real problem: ensuring that media consumers everywhere are media literate, and posses the tools to decide for themselves how to evaluate the trustworthiness of a source.
Twitter can be useful to journalists and other media producers by providing a direct line to what millions of people around the globe are thinking and feeling. However, Twitter was not designed for the sole use of media outlets or in the service of truth.
Twitter is a platform for users to engage with each other, nothing more. Some people exchange verified and accurate information; others trade jokes and spread misinformation, the same way hoax email chain letters still make their way around the internet.
The key when evaluating new media spaces like Twitter is to allow them room to grow, change, and evolve. If folks press for regulation too early, or try to squeeze new media into an old media framework, who knows what new opportunities we could lose?